Defeated in Iraq: How America Lost the War

Jonathan Steele is a senior correspondent and columnist for London's Guardian newspaper. He made eight reporting trips to Iraq between 2003 and 2006. His new book Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq was recently released in the United States. AlterNet caught up with Steele to talk about his book.

Suzi Steffen: When did you first think about the main thesis for this book -- that the invasion and occupation were unacceptable to Iraqis from the beginning?

Jonathan Steele: Before the invasion, I was keen to know what Iraqis actually thought. After all, it's their country; they're the ones being invaded. They're affected most by the continuation or removal of Saddam. So while I was in Amman [in the lead-up to and just after the U.S.-led invasion], I interviewed a lot of Iraqis. There was a community of about 300,000 in Jordan at that stage. And I thought, look, this is a good chance to talk to Iraqis; my colleague in Baghdad had to have a minder and had a much harder time. I spent several hours every day talking to Iraqis. It wasn't just stopping people in the street; I sat down with people in their homes, in cafés and restaurants. I was struck by how divided and conflicted people were about whether they wanted an invasion.

They were against Saddam; after all, that's why they were exiles in Jordan. But in spite of the fact they were against Saddam, many were against the invasion, so I began to get the sense this was a very complicated thing. The sort of line we were getting from Washington and London that people were fed up and would welcome an invasion -- I realized it was much more complex than that. And when I thought about it more, it was obvious really. It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Occupations are going to be unpopular! People don't want foreign troops in their streets and foreign tanks driving around.

Steffen: And after you got to Iraq?

Jonathan Steele: When I arrived in Baghdad just after April 9, some of the obvious questions to ask Iraqis were, "How do you feel about an occupation?" and, "How long do you think it should last, and how long should the British and Americans remain here?" I got the same sense as in Amman that people were very torn about it.

In the book, I quote one of first people I talked to, a Shia geologist in his early 30s who had studied oil and decided when he graduated that he didn't want to work for the regime. There was no private sector in Iraq at that point. He was a man who was a firm opponent of Saddam; he had sacrificed his career and had become a taxi driver. So when I said, "What do you think about this war?" and he said, "Saddam betrayed us," I was absolutely staggered. I said, "What do you mean?" and he said, "He failed to resist and prevent the occupation of Baghdad."

That kind of comment was repeated in different forms constantly as the occupation continued.

Also, people expected great things from Americans, things that were perhaps a bit unrealistic -- electricity and water and jobs immediately. But they had the idea, "It's a superpower; they toppled Saddam in three weeks, how come they can't get the electricity going?"

Encapsulating the mood, about three months after the invasion, a graffito appeared on the plinth of the famously toppled Saddam statue. The graffito said, "All done, go home." I think that summed it up. It's the same sentiment I remember hearing on great march of [Shia] pilgrims through Karbala within three or four weeks of the toppling of the statue -- "Thank you, and now goodbye."

Of course, no date was ever given of when the occupation was going to end. President Bush talked about Mission Accomplished. The Iraqis echoed that and said, "There are no WMD; you've toppled Saddam; why are you still here?"

First there was a sense of confusion -- we want to be rid of Saddam, but we don't want our country invaded -- then a sense of humiliation with foreign tanks in the streets. Then came suspicion: what's the plan, what's the agenda? The United States must have own its intentions that are not necessarily in our best interests. Then it turned into anger at the Humvees with guns pointed at [Iraqis] -- "They say they liberated us, but now they're treating us as an enemy."

Steffen: I interviewed a Marine who was in the initial occupation. He tells the story that at first, people in the suburbs of Baghdad were bringing out plates of figs, saying, "Why weren't you here sooner?" But then, he said, that ended.

Jonathan Steele: And it ended very quickly in the areas west of Baghdad like Fallujah. I think it was just to be expected. The main thing is that the Americans and the British didn't seem to get into the mind of the Iraqis. The default option in any occupation is to say, people don't like us -- but Americans got the default option completely wrong.

Steffen: In the book, you mention that this might be because the U.S. officials were working from the assumption that occupying Iraq would be like occupying Germany or Japan after WWII.

Jonathan Steele: In his book, Paul Bremer makes no secret of that. He was still using this German and Japan analogy of 1945, which didn't meet any resistance -- and the historical circumstances were quite different.

Britain imposed a monarchy in Iraq and brutally repressed resistance that emerged in the 1920s. The U.S. record had to do with sanctions, though they were imposed under a U.N. resolution that was seen as an American program that imposed economic hardship and suffering. The sanctions made it impossible for importing [medical] drugs, for instance. It wasn't as though the United States and the United Kingdom were writing on a blank sheet. They were coming as people who were not popular because of past performance. They weren't popular apart from the brief gratitude when they toppled Saddam, which was overtaken quickly by suspicion of the open-ended occupation.

Steffen: Right now, the United States is building several "permanent bases" in Iraq. Do you think that was the real reason for the invasion?

Jonathan Steele: Well, I think it's not entirely clear what the main reason was. There were a number of reasons and a number of different political groups within the administration. There were the neocons, and there were hard-nosed realists like Rumsfeld and Cheney concerned with projecting U.S. power. George W. himself may have had issues to do with his father, either trying to compete or do work his father failed to do. There were people who thought Saddam was a menace, a threat to Israel, and it was important to eliminate threat.

Certainly, it is a defeat. If the neocon project was to have secular, pro-Western, stable democracy in Iraq, it's very unstable, not pro-Western, not secular. And it's a defeat in foreign policy terms because far from being launch pad for pressure on Iran, Iran has benefited from the invasion.

Steffen: In the book, you rarely mention oil. Is that deliberate? Do you think that the invasion was, as some anti-war activists claim, all about oil?

Jonathan Steele: Oil is certainly in the minds of the Iraqis who are suspicious that the U.S. is staying there to take the oil. War has raised the oil price by four times, so clearly, oil companies have benefited. To that extent, maybe it was about oil, but that [rise in price] has done a lot of harm to U.S. economy.

Steffen: You describe many cultural gaffes -- using dogs to search houses, the interpretation of night goggles as seeing through women's clothing, a lack of interpreters. Has that changed? Are there efforts to cross those cultural gulfs now?

Jonathan Steele: There are all of these cultural things. They've got more interpreters than they used to, but it's a bit too late for cultural sensitivity. People don't like the occupation. The majority want the occupation to end. So that's the main issue. They don't want the occupation to be more culturally sensitive; they want the occupation gone.

Steffen: You write that the U.S. and Britain underestimated both the complexity of politics and religious factions in Iraq. Where did this view of Iraqi politics come from?

Jonathan Steele: I think it came from the fact that in 1991, there was the Shia uprising that was brutally suppressed by Saddam in which maybe 100,000 people lost their lives. So there was a feeling that the second time around, they're bound to be grateful. The U.S. also thought Shia had been suppressed by Sunnis for centuries and that the Shia would become the main political force because they're 60 percent of the population. I think they misunderstood or underestimated that the Iraqi Shia are just as nationalistic as Iraqi Sunnis. Also, they didn't understand that Islamists in the Shia community would come out on top. They thought secular English-speaking people would come out on top.

Steffen: Because they listened to secular English-speaking Iraqi exiles?

Jonathan Steele: They listened to the exiles, and the other reason was that they didn't have any embassies in Baghdad. One of the great paradoxes of the occupation was that the two countries most keen on invading Iraq didn't have embassies there for [the previous] 12 years, so they were out of touch with what Iraqis thought and what the mood was.

Steffen: In a recent poll, the Pew Research Group reports that 48 percent of Americans polled now feel that the U.S. should stay in Iraq until conditions improve, that the U.S. forces are doing the right thing. What's your opinion about the forces remaining in Iraq?

Jonathan Steele: Well, a recent Gallup Poll said 60 percent of Americans wanted a timetable for troops to come home, so these polls seem to contradict each other. What was a bit bizarre was that of the people who wanted the U.S. to stay, 20 percent were people who had initially opposed the war. So they would be of the "you broke it, you fix it" argument.

I find that pretty extraordinary. It may be based on a moral sense, and a way it is good that they feel the U.S. has a responsibility, but I don't think the U.S. does have a responsibility to fix it.

If you have a faucet leaking in your kitchen and you call in a plumber and an hour after he's started work the entire kitchen's flooded with three feet of water, you say, you broke it, you pay for it -- but I'm getting a new plumber. The U.S. and Britain have a responsibility to pay for damage they've caused. Some people might even say that should be called reparations. But others should do the fixing. That could be Iraqis, the U.N., the Arab League, some international consortium. But the U.S. and Britain should no longer be in charge of getting Iraq back to normal,

Steffen: Things seem calmer in recent months.

Jonathan Steele: It's true that the level of attacks on civilians and civilian casualties have gone down over past the few months, and that's a marvelous thing. They can go to work more freely, send their kids to school, etc. But it's gone back to level of 2004-2005 violence, and that's far from normal. There are a number of reasons why that's happened; the spin is it's all due to the surge, but there are at least three other factors which are more important.

The first reason is that the Sunni elders and tribal sheikhs of Anbar Province have turned against al-Qaeda. In 2004-2005, there was a sort of second invasion of Iraq by jihadi militants, many of them from Saudi Arabia, but also from Yemen and other places, and they've been deliberately trying to provoke civil war. The Sunni leadership has begun to turn against it and try and resist it.

Secondly the [Shia militia groups headed by] Moqtada al-Sadr have had a cease-fire.

Thirdly, it's now much harder to kill people. People have fled to areas where their own people are in the majority. There's been a separation of communities, so it's harder for death squads to operate. There are blast walls and concrete and local vigilante groups, and the U.S. has helped in that process of physical infrastructure and providing some of the patrolling.

Steffen: Some commentators have either called for or predicted that Iraq will be broken up into three sectors or three countries -- a Sunni area, a Shia area and an independent Kurdistan.

Jonathan Steele: I think that's pretty unlikely. It's a kind of politics 101 approach, a simplistic reductio absurdum saying that because it's been bad in the past five years, that must lead to civil war or partition. The point I really emphasize is that Iraq is not like the former Yugoslavia where there are deep divisions based on language and history. Iraq has not had that. The Kurds clearly would like to be independent, but no one would tolerate it. That's a separate issue, actually much more dangerous than the Sunni-Shia thing.

Steffen: Moqtada al-Sadr recently agreed to a longer cease-fire with U.S. troops. But it seems that many in his Mahdi army disagree with that plan.

Jonathan Steele: It's interesting because there are two things happening, which contradict each other. There seems to be a bit of revulsion by ordinary people against Islamists on both sides, against al-Qaeda and a bit now against Sadrists. Ordinary people saying they're not protecting us; it's just a racket. There's a loss of popularity of al-Sadr, and some of his commanders are saying they want to get back into action. When they're told to sit at home and not use their guns, maybe their business isn't so good. So it was a great thing that he continued it because there was speculation that he would be under pressure and wouldn't have the political strength to renew it. The cease-fire is good in itself but also shows that he has a bit more control over local militias than we suspected.

Steffen: Should the U.S. and U.K. pull the troops out now?

Jonathan Steele: Britain is irrelevant now; there are [only] 2,500 British troops at airport in Basra. They're sort of hostages because [British Prime Minister Gordon] Brown doesn't want to antagonize Bush too much. But the U.S. should announce that it's going. It will take 9-12 months to get 160,000 troops and equipment out, and hopefully that would be done under conditions of a cease-fire. There would have to be contacts between U.S. and Sadrists and Sunnis so the U.S. can pull out not under fire.

Secondly, there have to be political negotiations among Iraqis themselves. It would change the climate in Iraq if people knew the occupation would come to end. Al-Qaeda would really be on the back foot because their whole purpose in country would have been achieved. I think that's what the Iraqis would say to al-Qaeda, the same that the graffiti said for the Americans: "All done, go home."


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